Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Rutger & The Wreck: A Chat with Ken Rowles

Rutger Hauer (2018)
Rutget Hauer. Image: DWDD [CC BY 3.0]
The late Dutch actor Rutger Hauer left behind a highly impressive CV, one which includes the likes of 80s classics Blade Runner and The Hitcher, along with four Dutch-language films directed by Paul Verhoeven: Katie TippelTurkish DelightSpetters and Soldier of Orange.  In his later years, Hauer was more often than not seen in supporting roles, and during this century he appeared in several big-budget productions including Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins; towards the end of his life, he had a part in Jacques Audiard's outstanding The Sisters Brothers (pictured below, courtesy of UniFrance).  Back in the late 1980s, Hauer was due to star in a film called Torment, yet there's virtually nothing in the way of information regarding this title, despite it occurring during the height of the actor's popularity.  Although there are a few scant production details listed on the British Film Institute's website, Torment has always presented something of a mystery, so I'm pleased to have finally learned a bit more about it, courtesy of the man who was in place to direct the film.

Back in October, I spent a very pleasant couple of hours or so with filmmaker Ken Rowles, who has numerous credits dating back more than fifty years.  I actually met with Ken to ask him about his work on Jean-Luc Godard's Sympathy for the Devil, but our conversation also covered a number of Ken's other projects, both realised and unrealised, with Torment coming under the latter category.  In Ken's many years in the film industry, he's encountered and/or worked with the likes of Stanley Baker, Tony Curtis, Dick Emery, Simon Ward, Ken Russell, Peter Sykes, and Ian McShane, and his film with Rutger Hauer sounds like an intriguing project, one which will sadly never come to fruition.  Torment was to be written and produced by Christian Bel, who took on the same duties for the Anthony Quinn–Lauren Bacall love story A Star for Two, a project that was made after Torment failed to get off the ground.  A Star for Two is a remarkably difficult title to track down, although Bel has uploaded a promo reel for the film to YouTube; Bel, like yours truly, has a solitary feature film to his name on the IMDb, and it seems that he left the film industry following the 1991 release of A Star for Two, which was directed by Canadian Jimmy Kaufman.

Anyway, Ken informed me that Torment was to be a film centring on the Algerian War, or, more accurately, the aftermath of the conflict, as the lead character struggled with his memories of the war as he tried to live out his life in Paris, and this mental anguish is presumably what the film's title referred to.  As the director, Ken spent a lot of time in Paris as the film entered its pre-production phase, and he also flew out to Tunisia to look at potential locations.  But, despite all the groundworkthe film never made it into production; while Torment is by no means unusual in this regard, it does sound like a film that had real potential, and it would have been interesting to see Hauer at work in such a project.  The efforts Ken described served as a reminder of the huge amount of work that goes into each of the many films that never get made, and so often it's merely a simple matter of luck that determines if a film goes ahead or falls by the wayside.

I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with Ken, and much more of our conversation (particularly the material regarding Jean-Luc Godard) should eventually surface as part of a writing project I'm currently working on.  Ken still makes films, and in recent years he has directed a documentary about the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery, an explosives-laden vessel that sits just 30 miles from London.  The Wreck is narrated by Ian McShane, and I've been lucky enough to see a workprint of the film; it provides a fascinating look at a remarkable situation: despite this ship and its deadly cargo remaining on a seabed close to densely populated land, the authorities apparently have little interest in tending to the issue.  You can view the film's promo reel below.

Darren Arnold

Monday, 23 November 2020

Endless (Scott Speer, 2020)

The Movie Partnership is excited to be releasing Endless, a high school love story with a sinister twist, to digital download platforms from today.  This follows an October theatrical release exclusively in Showcase Cinemas.

From the producer who brought you Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper's box office smash hit A Star Is BornEndless follows madly in love high school graduates Riley (Alexandra Shipp) and Chris (Nicholas Hamilton).  When the pair are separated by a tragic car accident, Riley blames herself for her boyfriend's death while Chris is stranded in limbo.  Miraculously, the two find a way to connect. 

In a love story that transcends life and death, both Riley and Chris are forced to learn the hardest lesson of all - letting go.  Endless also stars X-Men legend Famke Janssen and DeRon Horton, who stars in the groundbreaking Dear White People and Netflix's Burning Sands.

Endless will be available to watch on all major digital download platforms from today.  Stay in the loop with the film here on Instagram.

Source/images: Strike Media

Thursday, 5 November 2020

Druk (Thomas Vinterberg, 2020)

Director Thomas Vinterberg's new film Druk (English: Another Round) is a production that received support from the Netherlands Film Fund, and it played at the London Film Festival just last month.  Vinterberg's previous film, Kursk, was a solid if unspectacular retelling of the tragic fate of the eponymous Russian vessel, but Druk sees the director on altogether more familiar ground, and this efffort feels much more organic than his serviceable submarine movie.  For this latest film, Vinterberg reunites with his Jagten star, the excellent and reliable Mads Mikkelsen, and the results are almost as impressive as the pair's previous joint venture.  Between these two collaborations, Vinterberg made a brace of English-language films (Kursk and Far from the Madding Crowd) with Belgian star Matthias Schoenaerts, an actor whose style is somewhat similar to Mikkelsen's; it is easy to see why the director has favoured these two performers in recent times. 

Mikkelsen's Martin is a high school teacher going through the motions in work and life, and both his family and pupils seem bored of a man who seems to have largely lost interest in the world.  Things change when Martin and three of his colleagues agree to test out the theory of Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who hypothesised that humans have a blood alcohol deficit of 0.05% and should look to redress this in order to function properly.  Naturally, putting this theory into practice takes a bit of trial and error, and the four participants take to keeping bottles and breathalysers stashed away in the workplace as they look to maintain the level prescribed by Skårderud.  After a few adjustments, Martin gets to a point that allows him to reconnect with both his wife and his students; life has certainly picked up for Martin and his friends, but how long before the constant drip-feeding of alcohol escalates into something more serious?

While Thomas Vinterberg will most likely always remain in the long shadow cast by his breakthrough feature Festen—a film that is now 25 years old—he more often than not makes interesting, accessible films, and Druk is definitely one of his better efforts.  The film is helped no end by a well-judged lead performance from Mads Mikkelsen and, good as his co-stars are, there's a sneaking suspicion that Druk would be greatly diminished without Mikkelsen's presence; his Martin is by no mean a dislikeable man, but is rather someone who's lost his way a little, and the actor channels an affable world-weariness that is always relatable.  Not unlike Mikkelsen's character in Jagten, Martin is basically a decent guy who finds himself in a hole he needs to dig his way out of, and while the situation in Druk isn't nearly as grave as that in Jagten, Martin still has his work cut out if he's to save his relationship with his wife and sons.

Druk contains some very convincing scenes of drunkenness and, just like recent documentary Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (which could quite easily partner Druk in a boozy double bill), it convincingly conveys the seductive, appealing nature of drinking, although Druk pans out as a cautionary tale as opposed to Bloody Nose's observational, non-judgmental take on barflies at play.  Druk can be fairly predictable at times, but it's an authentic piece of cinema, one that again confirms how reliable Thomas Vinterberg has become—although he would no doubt be aghast to be labelled as such.  It seems quite a coincidence that two of Vinteberg's very best films have starred Mads Mikkelsen, and with any luck the pair will collaborate again in the near future; of course, if it turns out that Mads is busy (as he may well be), perhaps his very able stand-in Matthias Schoenaerts will be available?

Darren Arnold

Images: image.net

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Friendship's Death (Peter Wollen, 1987)

Film theorists Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey were married for 25 years and made a number of films together, including Amy! and Riddles of the Sphinx.  As a filmmaker, Wollen—who died late last year—branched out on his own to make Friendship's Death, which was to be his only solo feature film.  While Wollen will always be best remembered for his seminal 1969 book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, his 1987 rarity Friendship's Death is a film that fully deserves its new 4K remaster, which plays as part of the Treasures strand at the London Film Festival from Saturday until Tuesday.  If you happen to miss its festival screenings, a much-needed Blu-ray of this new version will be available at some point over the next year; the disc was due to be released this year, but scheduling issues have pushed it back, with the ETA now being June 2021.

Friendship's Death is effectively a two-hander between Bill Patterson's war correspondent and Tilda Swinton's alien.  Friendship, the extra-terrestrial, is on her way to Massachusetts Institute of Technology when she drifts off course and finds herself in Jordan, which happens to be in the middle of the Black September conflict of 1970.  There, she's steered away from danger by Patterson's Sullivan, and the two go on to enjoy a number of conversations that both sides appear to find equally fascinating.  Sullivan isn't sure whether to believe Friendship's story—she looks and sounds completely human, and he voices suspicions that she might be an agent—but he's certainly interested in finding out more about her.  As the Palestinians and Jordanians go at it outside, Friendship and Sullivan hole up in a PLO-controlled hotel; over a bottle or three of whisky, the pair discuss a range of topics including technology, humanity, football, and of course the conflict that rages around them.  

Although it was made 33 years ago, much of Friendship's Death's dialogue feels remarkably fresh and relevant, with both the man–machine interface and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict remaining two ongoing issues that aren't going away anytime soon.  The point, or at least one of several, appears to be that Friendship is much more sensitive than many humans, and this is something we've witnessed in many a sci-fi tale, with Steven Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence featuring an especially poignant example.  Does Friendship have as soul, or just a facsimile of one?  It doesn't really seem to matter to Sullivan, who enjoys Friendship's company regardless of what may or may not lie beneath her warm, inquisitive exterior.

Perhaps the only gripe with Friendship's Death is that is often feels a bit too much like a filmed play, with two actors and as many sets forming the bulk of the snappy running time.  But that isn't too much of a problem when you have characters and dialogue as engaging as this.  The two leads are both very good here; Swinton, currently starring in Pedro Almodóvar's The Human Voice (which also plays at this year's LFF), gives an appealing performance in a role that's very different from the sort we're now used to seeing her play, while Patterson, just a few years on from his great turn in Bill Forsyth's chronically underrated Comfort and Joy, imbues the world-weary Sullivan with a compassion that belies his cynical, battle-hardened demeanour.  Friendship's Death is something of a minor gem, and its new lease of life is extremely welcome.

Darren Arnold

Image: BFI

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Rose: A Love Story (Jennifer Sheridan, 2020)

This terrific debut feature from director Jennifer Sheridan is one of just three films in the Cult strand at this year's London Film Festival.  The Cult section of the LFF brochure is typically where I start when I'm circling what to watch at the festival, and although I would have liked to have seen a few more titles in there this year, this paring down is in line with the festival having been streamlined in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.  On the upside, it means I should manage to see everything Cult has to offer this year, as scheduling conflicts almost always get in the way of me completing a full set when it comes to catching up with everything in this particular strand.  With only a few slots to play with, the LFF programmers had to get it exactly right this year, and Rose: A Love Story, which had its world premiere this evening, is an excellent choice to fly the flag for the Cult strand in these troubled times.  The film screens at the festival from today until Friday.

Rose, which features facemasks, surgical gloves, and a couple spending most of their time indoors, feels very appropriate for the world we're currently living in.  Rose (Sophie Rundle) and Sam (Matt Stokoe, also the film's writer) live in an isolated house in the woods, where they have minimal contact with the outside world.  Their home has no electricity, but is powered by a petrol generator; Sam has an agreement that enables fuel to be delivered to him, but a rupture in this supply forces him to venture further afield in order to keep the generator topped up.  Sam's trip to the filling station has a definite air of risk to it, much like the feelings many of us had (and may still have) when venturing out for supplies during lockdown.  While Sam succeeds in getting the fuel, there's an altercation connected to the original non-delivery of the petrol, one that seriously spooks Rose when she learns of the incident and its potential to threaten her and Sam's off-the-grid existence.

While Sam is at the garage, he collects a parcel containing leeches he has ordered, and we witness him, more than once, administering the bloodsucking creatures to his own body.  After a while a picture emerges: Rose has a taste for blood, and therefore must be kept away from it at all costs, and the jars of well-fed leeches act as a source of sustenance, should the urges become too strong; this vampiric tendency also explains why Rose doesn't really venture outside of the poorly-lit house.  While the petrol station episode is yet to have repercussions, Sam and Rose's idyll is nevertheless shattered when young runaway Amber (Olive Gray) gets caught in one of the many gin traps surrounding the well-guarded property.  Amber's leg is broken by the trap, and Sam helps her but is naturally at great pains to stop the blood making too much of a mess.  With Rose banished upstairs, Sam cauterises the wound and resets the leg, then reluctantly agrees to let the injured girl stay the night.

While vampire tales are certainly nothing new, Rose manages to come up with an interesting take on the genre in that it is, above all else, a human story, one in which Sam and Rose's relationship is most definitely at the forefront, with the horror elements used both sparingly and effectively.  At times ,the film put me in mind of Leave No Trace and Let the Right One In (and its remake Let Me In), but somehow the film never once feels derivative.  The nicely-photographed wintry locale really adds to the sense of isolation, and, as is typical for films in which characters are doing their best to stay unnoticed, we take in the sight of the protagonists going about their strict daily routine, all the while acutely aware that their peace simply can't last—which provokes mixed feelings: we're rooting for Rose and Sam, but also wish for an agent of change to come along and shake things up.  As its subtitle informs us, Rose is very much a love story, one that proves both fresh and appealing, and it is a far cry from the tired, formulaic horror that typically rears its head at this time of year..

Darren Arnold

Images: Strike Media

Sunday, 11 October 2020

The Cheaters (Paulette McDonagh, 1930)

Sydney's pioneering McDonagh sisters made several self-funded films, including Those Who Love and The Far Paradise.  Their third silent festure, The Cheaters, was filmed in 1929 and released the following year, when the McDonaghs filmed some additional scenes in an effort to convert the film into a partial talkie using an improvised sound recoding device; sadly, the makeshift system, however ingenious, didn't achieve the desired results, and the film worked better as a silent feature—although it still underperformed on its limited domestic release, with a deluge of American sound films brushing it aside.  The film has now been lovingly restored by Australia's National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), with this new print of the film (in its original silent version) enjoying some outings at festivals including Melbourne and Sydney; it screens at the London Film Festival from today until Wednesday.

The Cheaters finds Paulette McDonagh in the role of writer-director, while Phyllis McDonagh serves as the film's art director.  Isabella McDonagh, under her stage name Marie Lorraine, stars as Paula Marsh, whose father is a career criminal bent on taking revenge on the man who once shopped him for embezzling from his employer.  Paula is part of her father's operation and is involved in scams such as the theft of an expensive necklace, which is depicted in an early, entertaining sequence.  Business is good for the Marsh family, but the situation grows more complicated when Paula falls in love with the son of the man her father's aiming to take down.  While Paula would very much like to leave her life of crime behind and marry the man of her dreams, her father wants her to take part in one last heist—and we all know how those tend to work out.  What could possibly go wrong?

Although The Cheaters starts out strongly—the aforementioned scene in which the Marsh gang swindle a jeweller out of a pricey item really is great stuff—it soon runs out of steam as Paula's love life takes precedence over her criminal activities, and what promised to be a fun caper film soon gets bogged down by an unappealing love story.  While silent movies were always at an obvious disadvantage and often had to concentrate on quickly driving the plot forward, usually at the expense of nuanced storytelling, The Cheaters finds itself in the strange position where it slows down the pace, but then proceeds to do very little with the time and space it has carved out; the result stretches the already-thin topic of Paula's romance to breaking point.  It's a pity the film judders to a halt like this, as it really does come roaring out of the traps, and the setup is extremely promising.  Given the time in which the film was made, there was only going to be one outcome for the villain of the piece (Paula's father), which makes for a conclusion that may well prove unsatisfying for present-day audiences.  On a more positive note, the production values are excellent, as is the use of locations.

To criticise The Cheaters for its long, dull stretch may be to miss the point of this release, which is to show off a sparkling new print of a film that, like Chess of the Wind, could very easily have been lost to the sands of time.  It is estimated that up to 90% of silent films are gone, so the survival of The Cheaters is something to be celebrated.  Since its inception five years ago, the NFSA's restoration program has seen more than 20 Australian classics—ranging from silent movies to films from the early 1990s—preserved and restored before being re-released in cinemas.  The Cheaters may not be the best example of silent cinema, but we should all be extremely grateful for the chance to see it. 

Darren Arnold

Image: image.net

Saturday, 10 October 2020

Chess of the Wind (Mohammad Reza Aslani, 1976)

The story behind the magnificent 4K restoration of The Chess Game of the Wind is arguably more interesting than the film itself: Mohammad Reza Aslani's debut feature endured a disastrous premiere at the 1976 edition of the Tehran International Film Festival, and the film was subsequently yanked from both the festival and public view.  To add insult to injury, the film was then banned in the wake of the Iranian Revolution of 1978—not that it needed any government assistance when it came so slipping into obscurity. For the next four decades, the film was largely considered to be lost, save for a very distressed VHS copy that changed hands between those sufficiently determined to dig out this holy grail of Iranian cinema.  The possibilliy of a "proper" version of this lost film ever turning up seemed less than remote, but in 2015 director Aslani was visiting a a flea market when he stumbled across the original negatives, which he duly purchased.  Aslani then sent the reels to France, where they were restored thanks to funds from the George Lucas Family Foundation.   

The Chess Game of the Wind, variously known as Chess of the Wind (the title it plays under at the London Film Festival, where it screens from today until Tuesday), A Game of Chess Lost to the Wind and Shatranj-e baad (Farsi), centres on a wealthy, Qajar dynasty-era family squabbling over a large inheritance, and as such plays along the lines of Rian Johnson's recent smash Knives Out, which screened at last year's LFF.  Although The Chess Game of the Wind contains far less humour than Johnson's enjoyable (if hugely overrated) film, there are some striking similarities between the two movies, including the significant role played by servants as the story twists its way to its climax, not to mention the lengths those circling the honey pot will go to in order to secure what they see as being rightfully theirs.  The Chess Game of the Wind features a dank, creepy basement littered with barrels of acid, so it's not too surprising to find that not all of these characters make it to the end—what was it Chekhov said about a gun?

One way in which The Chess Game of the Wind most definitely doesn't resemble Knives Out is in its accessibility; Aslani's film proves a difficult one to get a grip on, but it may well be that things become slightly clearer on subsequent viewings.  While obviously set many decades before the time in which it was made, the film was presumably a commentary on a particular section of 1970s Iranian society, one whose lives would be changed considerably once the Shah was overthrown.  Thus, the film serves as both a snapshot of pre-revolution Iran and a reminder of a time in which such a project could be made in that country; just a couple of years later, the film's lack of Islamic content cemented its place in the cinematic wilderness.

The Chess Game of the Wind, one of only two features directed by Aslani (the other being 2008's The Green Fire), stands one of the the best recent examples of a film being pulled back from the brink of extinction, and to go from that perilous situation to this incredible print is little short of miraculous.  Sometimes, restored versions of movies fail to produce a significant improvement, but the difference between the old and new prints of this film—and I've seen the creaky VHS copy that was once the only option—really is like night and day.  The Chess Game of the Wind film deserves to be seen simply on the basis of its remarkable, unlikely rescue, and while there is certainly a most handsome movie in there, the content will most likely remain overshadowed by the sheer improbability of its survival.

Darren Arnold

Images: image.net